Environmentalists are trying to close the gate, but the horse has already bolted
With its diverse landscape which offers visitors and investors alike a blend of ski, lake-side and coastal areas, Bulgaria is understandably gaining popularity as both a holiday and investment destination, a trend that is likely to accelerate with EU accession. But while many foreigners are looking forward to spending more time in this culturally and environmentally rich Balkan country, most remain unaware of the damage its popularity is said to be causing the environment.
The World Wildlife Fund is the latest charitable organisation to draw attention to the Bulgarian landscape's vulnerability, with a public campaign to put pressure on the authorities to protect the country's national parks. Incredible as it may seem, these "protected" areas - namely the Pirin, Rila and Strandzha mountains - are being eroded by some very unnatural forces in the form of developers who are bulldozing the areas to make way for the illegal and semi-legal construction of villas, hotels, ski runs and other infrastructure, as well as logging, hunting and other often illegal exploitation of resources.
"Currently there seems to be something of a gold-rush syndrome accompanying the headlong drive to develop the Bulgarian coast and mountains, as everyone from politicians, bankers and developers to private investors seizes their chance to earn quick rich pickings from the sudden and dramatic boom being experienced in both real estate and tourism markets," states Julian Perry, a keen environmentalist, owner of the specialist eco and adventure tour company, Balkan Trek, and author of The Mountains of Bulgaria: A Walker's Companion. "The tragedy is that in the years ahead, when the immediate feeding frenzy ends and the development bubble bursts, what Bulgaria is in danger of being left with is an environmentally ravaged coastline and mountain heartland, ringed by a concrete desert of half empty hotels and apartment blocks."
The WWF's "For Sale" campaign, produced by PR firm Ogilvy and Mather Sofia, ran last autumn and was given both space and airtime by more than 30 media and advertising firms. It was accompanied by a petition supported by a number of Bulgarian environmental organisations which calls on decision makers and authorities to improve the legislative, administrative and judicial conditions needed to stop the destruction of the country's natural heritage. Many campaigners point to Sunny Beach, a popular resort on the Black Sea coast, as an example of overdevelopment.
According to Perry, the Rila, Pirin and Strandzha parks are not the only areas at risk from developers. "Another region that deserves equal if not even greater attention is the Rhodope," he claims. "These mountains are of the utmost importance internationally for their biodiversity, hence the start of a major new UN GEF project to help try and preserve them. The great irony and danger is that, although probably the most environmentally important region of the country, it is also one of the least protected, with just a small number of reserves and protected territories scattered across its immense area."
With EU membeship now a reality, campaigners and green holidaymakers are hoping that pressure will be brought to bear on those developers who flout the laws surrounding these areas. "These priceless natural treasures should be protected and promoted," insists Perry. "They are the real foundations and future building blocks of a truly sustainable tourism policy and plan for rural development, and should not be buried away forever under piles of concrete, heaps of builders' rubble and mountains of rubbish."
For more information visit
World Wildlife Fund (www.panda.org)
Rhodope Project (www.rodope.org)
Balkan Trek (www.balkantrek.com)